JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia will resume sending bird flu virus specimens to the World Health Organization immediately, the health minister said Tuesday, ending a four-month standoff health officials feared could potentially put the entire world at risk.
Siti Fadiliah Supari -- whose nation has been hardest hit by bird flu, with 66 human deaths -- had earlier refused to share virus samples, saying she wanted a guarantee they would not be used to develop expensive commercial vaccines.
International scientists argued she was making it impossible to monitor the Indonesian virus to see if it was mutating into a more dangerous form.
"We will start sending bird flu samples to the World Health Organization immediately," Supari told reporters after two days of talks with top WHO officials, who assured her the virus would not be misused.
"We trust WHO," Supari said in an apparent about face. "We trust WHO will not violate our trust, because this is related to the WHO's credibility."
For weeks the health minister has been demanding that the global body change its 50-year-old virus sharing system, in which it collects regular flu samples from all over the world and makes them available to vaccine makers and others.
She argued that -- in the event of a pandemic -- large pharmaceutical companies would use the virus to make vaccines that were ultimately unaffordable to her people.
"These practices keep developing countries poor and sick," Supari told el-Shinta radio station hours before Tuesday night's press conference. "The system is more dangerous than bird flu itself."
Indonesia's decision to withhold the virus had received support from some other developing nations, many of which sent health chiefs to Jakarta for the gathering that wraps up Wednesday.
Dr. David Heymann, WHO's top flu official, earlier said Supari's demands would hinder research into the virus and jeopardize public safety.
"If we don't know what's going on, it's dangerous, and here is where the virus is most affecting humans," he told reporters late Monday, adding that vaccine makers are already looking elsewhere for virus samples.
"They will use other viruses, and it will leave Indonesia in great risk," he said. "And it will leave other countries in great risk."
Heymann suggested several ways to ensure a fairer distribution of vaccines, among them, creating stockpiles of vaccines for use in poor countries and transferring technology so they can produce their own.
To ensure it has access to a bird flu vaccine, Indonesia has reached a tentative agreement with U.S. drug manufacturer Baxter Healthcare Corp. Under the deal, Indonesia would provide samples of the virus in exchange for Baxter's expertise in vaccine production. Indonesia would stockpile the vaccine for use in case there is a major human outbreak.
Bird flu has killed at least 169 people since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in 2003, according to WHO. It remains hard for people to catch, and most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But experts fear it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.
Currently, only up to about 500 million doses of flu vaccine can be produced annually -- far short of what would be needed in a pandemic.